I've grown fond of the city of Mankato here in my home state of Minnesota. This is almost exclusively because of Matthias Leyrer, a Strong Towns contributor who not only lives there but routinely shares his frustrations and aspirations with Key City MN on his blog. Like my hometown of Brainerd, local leaders in Mankato seem committed to trying every failed strategy of the past regardless of what it costs them.

Recently a painful article was shared with me regarding Mankato's efforts to build themselves into decline. It was about a disputed gravel road and it began, depressingly, like this:

Right now, the future intersection of Hoffman Road and Blue Earth County Road 12 is a quiet farm field. In 30 years, the spot is expected to be one of the busiest junctions in the region with more vehicles than currently pass through the intersection of Madison Avenue and Victory Drive.

For some context, Mankato grew from around 32,000 in 1990 to around 39,000 in 2010. That's a nice healthy rate of growth -- not too fast, not too slow -- but they have, of course, grown their land area by much more. Mankato's 40,000 residents and businesses fit snugly into just over 18 square miles of land. That's slightly less than the 23 square miles inhabited by Manhattan's 1.6 million people. To use local language: Mankato's pretty much built out.

This is one of the reasons why they are constructing a new middle school way out on the edge of town. Another reason is all the sweet, sweet growth this is expected to create. And while everyone wants that growth -- which is practically guaranteed because they did a traffic study -- there are some hard choices that have to be made:

In anticipation of the traffic demand, county officials are preparing to construct a $9 million 1.7-mile extension of County Road 12 in 2017. The city of Mankato is already constructing a $7.9 million set of road improvements less than a half-mile to the west to bring drivers from Highway 22 to a new middle school set to open next fall.

Anytime a sentence starts with "in anticipation of traffic demand", you know that what comes next is crazy talk. So here we have a small, far-from-wealthy community spending tens of millions of dollars in anticipation of a 100x increase in traffic -- they are obviously committed to seeing this through -- which is what makes the hangup a bit perplexing.

But to build the road to a size to handle projected traffic levels, it needs to be larger than a typical county road. And that leaves nearly $400,000 in road costs the city needs to be responsible for as the eventual owner of the road.

The rest of the article goes on to describe the petty infighting and bizarre financing proposals needed to find the money to make up an amount that is a rounding error in the size of the projects they are moving ahead with. As Matthias says in the comments section, "This is legitimately the stupidest, most unresearched thing I have ever read."  Amen to that.

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At some point here, people's minds are made up and they are committed as a community to a course of action that, regardless of how foolish, cannot be arrested. Mankato is likely at that point. Yet, for a community stretching this far financially in anticipation of rewards in the future, there is still time -- and urgent need -- to make adjustments. 

If I was one of the leaders in Mankato being asked to approve these projects, here are some of the questions I would want answered:

  1. How much new tax base -- in real dollars -- is going to be needed to maintain all of the stuff being built now to accommodate the new school and anticipated growth, assuming no future tax increase on existing residents?
  2. What area will that tax base require to come to fruition?
  3. Where is the local or regional example of an area that generates that much wealth in a comparable area? What are its long term costs in comparison? In short: What does financial success look like when it is built?
  4. Where are the 30,000 cars per day expected to come from? Are these new residents or simply the same people driving more or to different places?
    1. If these trips are mostly the same people -- our residents -- driving more, have we factored in the cost per household for this additional time and expense and deducted that from our anticipation of future gains? Are there places they will now be driving less where we can cut back?
    2. If these trips are mostly new residents, how is it that we anticipate shattering regional growth trends?
  5. What is the risk we are assuming if growth projections fall 10%, 20% or 50% below expectation? How much additional tax burden will current residents and businesses face in these scenarios?

If Mankato were to ask and answer these questions, they would discover that they are really focused on getting the project built but have not really considered the long term financial ramifications of this course of action. This community has committed tens of millions of dollars to this endeavor, a substantial portion of their wealth. In order to make this investment -- a huge gamble, really -- pay off, they are going to have to make some really hard choices about the pattern of the growth they are trying to create. Where are they having that conversation?

"If we do nothing we'll have a gravel road mess when County Road 12 opens up," County Engineer Al Forsberg told a meeting of city and county leaders Thursday. "... It'll have heavy traffic. The gravel road just won't stand up to it. It'll be dusty. It'll be full of chuckholes."

Gravel roads with "chuckholes" -- I think I've actually been called that before -- are minor, minor concerns compared to the urgent need to have this investment pay off. If these millions of dollars being spent generate auto trips but not enough community wealth, the Ouija board of traffic projections can say whatever it wants, but Mankato is going to be poorer and less well off. 

Here's the reality: Nobody knows how much new wealth is needed to make this project pay off. Nobody. That's because the question is never asked and never considered. I'm with Matthias. This is legitimately the stupidest, most unresearched thing I have ever read.

(Top photo from Wikimedia)